By Claire West

Science Minister David Willetts has underlined his commitment to engage the public with science, after a survey published today showed that whilst there is an increasing appreciation for science, people feel less informed about it.

The Public Attitudes to Science 2011 survey finds that 82 per cent of people agree that “science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest” and 86 per cent say they are amazed by the achievements of science. These proportions have been steadily increasing since 2000. Participants were similarly positive about the potential impact of science on economic growth.

However, 51 per cent of people feel they see and hear too little information about science, compared with 34 per cent in 2008. Similarly, 56 per cent do not feel well informed about scientific research and developments, compared with 43 per cent three years ago. Two-thirds of people also agree that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said:

“Science, technology, engineering and maths are vital to economic growth. It’s encouraging that people are increasingly interested in research and new developments. However, more disappointingly, at the same time they feel less informed. People want more information and to engage with these subjects in a way that’s relevant to them. That’s a very clear message which Government has an important role in responding to.

“That’s why we have a £13 million commitment in the science budget this year alone for outreach in schools and public engagement. This will support flagship schemes such as the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre, which gives the public opportunities to get involved in shaping future science and technology policy. We have also committed to renewing the £6.3m support for STEMNET, an organisation that helps young people understand the amazing range of careers that can come from studying these subjects.”

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, said:

“The public’s positive attitude towards science is welcome and reassuring. At a time when the public finances are being squeezed it is important that people see science is a good investment for the future.

“The fact that people want to know more about what scientists are doing presents a big challenge for us. Scientists have not always put enough emphasis on having conversations about their work with the general public. Keeping science behind closed doors is not an option and talking at people is not good enough either. Where issues are controversial we have to find out what it is that bothers people and address those concerns. The survey shows that people recognise that scientists want to make people’s lives better, we perhaps sometimes need to listen more and to be better at explaining what we are trying to do and what the benefits and risks will be.”

Paul Jackson, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK, said:

“The Public Attitudes to Science report 2011 provides useful insight for organisations like EngineeringUK. While it’s encouraging to learn about growing public interest in science, it’s also worrying to note the outdated, stereotypical views about what a scientist is and that future potential scientists and engineers (those aged 16-24) are less informed about science and see STEM careers less positively. This is something that EngineeringUK, working with colleagues across the science and engineering communities, must address to ensure the future supply of scientists and engineers who are so important to our economic growth.”

Research Councils UK said:

“Research is vital for the future prosperity and wellbeing of the UK. Engaging the public with research helps empower people, broadens attitudes and ensures that the work of universities and research institutes is relevant to society and wider social concerns.

“RCUK is committed to working with researchers to encourage them to engage the public with their work. Along with the other UK funders of research, RCUK has underlined this commitment by putting in place the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research. The Concordat aims to create a greater focus on and help embed public engagement with research across all disciplines in the higher education and research sectors. By establishing an ongoing dialogue between the research community and the public, society can benefit more fully from the outputs of research.”

As well as supporting key national programmes such as Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre and STEMNET, the Government will also celebrate young people’s achievements in science and engineering by continuing to support the National Science and Engineering Competition. This will leverage significant further investment from science institutions and businesses.